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Everyone’s heard of the Subaru Outback. It’s been the default choice in affordable all-wheel station wagons for as long as this reviewer can remember, with its bulletproof reliability, all-wheel drive and extra ride height over its lower-slung Liberty stablemate.
That said, as Australia’s unconstrained obsession with SUVs continues unabated, the Outback has a lot more competition to worry about these days – even within the Subaru range itself – but it remains the smarter choice for many buyers.
Direct competitors are few and far between, but there’s a small group of similarly sized all-wheel-drive wagons that includes the likes of Volkswagen’s Passat Alltrack, as well as Volvo's (now retired) XC70, though both are (and were) priced considerably higher from $50,790 plus on-roads and $58,900 respectively. Then there's the hundred-grand V90 Cross Country...
Updates form a vital tool for manufacturers to keep models fresh, and for 2018 the Outback gets a mid-life refresh with a new infotainment package, engine, suspension and transmission tweaks, along with advanced safety kit and some exterior changes including new grille, front bumper and headlights – though you’ll be hard-pressed picking the latter, and not for a lack of trying either.
And despite a raft of new inclusions, price hikes have been kept in check to within a few hundred dollars of the old model, which was priced from around $42,000 – give or take.
I’d argue – wrongly or rightly – that it’s never been a particularly handsome vehicle, but buyers have always been attracted to the rugged styling of the Outback, as well as its exemplary ride comfort over almost any surface, not to mention clever space packaging inside and out.
That’s also one of the car’s key attributes we put to the test recently on an overnight surf trip from Sydney to the Ulladulla, complete with boards, bags and plenty of surf hardware for the variable conditions down in those parts.
This trip was all about short boarding, but had we wanted to lug a couple of traditional nine-foot-plus longboards or even a kayak with us, the Outback is equipped with an ingenious roof-rack design, where the standard-issue roof rails simply morph into roof-racks in all of 10 seconds flat – no tools required. But there is a weight caveat – no more than 80kg, but either way it’s a fantastic feature that highlights this car’s sheer versatility more than ever.
There’s also no shortage of boot space either, with the standard-fit power tailgate opening to reveal a spacious 512 litres behind the second-row seats, and expanding to nearly four times that for a closet-swallowing 1848L when folded. Plus, they fold virtually flat via a couple of boot-mounted levers, making for dead-easy loading of equipment such as surfboards, ladders and the like.
By way of comparison, the mid-size Subaru Forester makes do with 422L/1474L, while the larger Volvo XC70 wagon had slightly more room behind the rear seats but substantially less than the Outback when folded (575L/1600L respectively).
It’s also got some real length back there, being able to hold up to a seven-foot board, as well as several smaller boards, bags and other outdoor kit.
But that doesn’t mean you have to miss out on a full-size spare, or a clever under-floor compartment for housing those infernal cargo blinds that only ever seem to get in the way, especially if you’re carrying a bulky load.
Passengers are also treated well in the Outback, especially in the rear where there’s ample head, leg and shoulder room for three adults, including that all-important foot space under the front-row pews for taller frames.
There’s genuine comfort built into the front leather buckets with plush seat cushions and excellent seatback support. We only wish the boffins at Subaru chose some slightly more aggressive side bolsters to hold you firmer on those deserted country-road sweepers.
They say it’s the little things that matter, like the super-soft armrests on the doors and in between the seats themselves. These are without doubt as comfortable as those in any luxury car we’ve ever sat in.
Even the instrument stalks feel nice to the touch, as though they’ve been individually damped, while the other materials around the cabin are mostly semi-premium in look and feel. That said, hard plastics are unavoidable in this segment, but at least they’re mostly below knee level and out of sight in the Outback.
Equipment levels have always been generous with the Outback, but even better with the 2018 model that benefits from a larger 8.0-inch infotainment screen, along with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It’s one of the most intuitive and quick-to-pair systems we’ve sampled to date, which simply negates the need to ever use the car’s integrated navigation system.
As long as your smartphone is compatible, you can also send and receive text messages via voice-command, but again it rarely gets confused, while call connection is also faster than most.
Subaru has stuck with traditional instrument binnacles that are split between a digital display showing all the usual driver information including the all-important speed readout. It’s nothing special compared with the more contemporary full-scale digital clusters, but it’s clean and easily readable at a momentary glance.
Families will appreciate the latest version of Subaru’s all-encompassing third-generation EyeSight safety tech platform, which includes a smorgasbord of the latest active safety kit including front and side view monitors – the latter of which is great for tight kerb parking. It provides the driver with a crystal-clear view down the left-hand side of the vehicle at speeds up to 20km/h via the wing mirror-mounted camera.
There’s also lane-keep assist and enhanced pre-collision braking from 30–50km/h. We especially liked the Outback’s adaptive driving beam, which is brilliant in the way it monitors the area in front of the car while varying the beam so as not to dazzle the car ahead (as tested on the way to the hotel in Ulladulla).
Our 2.5i four is no rocketship despite some fine tuning. It produces the same 129kW and 235Nm of torque as the old model, but it's adequate for both city and highway driving. It’s just not that quick out of the blocks needing all of 10.2 seconds to hit 100km/h. The diesel is slightly quicker with heaps more torque, and the 3.6-litre petrol is of course quicker again.
It even feels slow, at least until you’re up to highway cruising speed, where it’s happy to sit all day without missing a beat. Mind you, there’s still more than enough grunt in reserve to perform high-speed overtaking on country B-roads, but not without giving it a proper bootful.
Subaru uses a CVT (Constantly Variable Transmission) almost exclusively (the BRZ sports car offers a traditional six-speed automatic) with a manual option on some models, and as this type of transmission goes it is pretty good at isolating the drivetrain from the cabin, though it’s still not as quiet as Honda’s CR-V.
Like almost all vehicles today, the Outback employs an electric power steering system for reduced mass and better efficiency, and while this unit is relatively responsive to steering inputs, the weighting doesn’t always feel entirely natural.
Despite tipping the scales at around 100kg more than its higher-riding Forester sibling (1628kg v 1530kg), its lower ride height together with some suspension tweaks – including changed damper settings – mean the Outback is sufficiently composed and balanced through corners, while still offering a superbly cushioned ride over less than perfect surfaces.
It’s also that increased ground clearance and all-wheel-drive capability that have always appealed to Outback buyers – something we were keen to properly test while accessing secluded surf spots in these parts. In that respect, it’s more capable than you might imagine, successfully negotiating bumps and ruts without so much as a glitch, though on this occasion it was an entirely dry surface.
You simply can’t argue with Australia’s obsession with SUVs, but the truth is their driving dynamics are compromised by a higher centre of gravity and generally heavier weight over more traditional wagons like the Subaru Outback.
Moreover, it’s the Subaru’s sheer versatility and all-round comfort, on and off road, that will have you singing its praises. Add to that a raft of all the latest tech, safety kit and storage solutions, and you’ve got a fairly compelling offering at an affordable price.